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Philadelphia Court Hearing Could Decide Fate of Imprisoned Journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal

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In Philadelphia, Mumia Abu-Jamal’s legal team is preparing for a hearing that could decide the fate of the imprisoned former Black Panther. Abu-Jamal has been on death row for 25 years after being convicted of killing a police officer following a controversial trial before a predominantly white jury. On Thursday, the Third Circuit Court Of Appeals will hear oral arguments to decide whether Mumia gets a new trial, life in prison without parole, or execution. Hundreds of supporters are planning to rally outside the courthouse. We’re joined by Linn Washington of The Philadelphia Tribune, and hear a recent audio commentary Mumia recorded behind bars. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: In Philadelphia, Mumia Abu-Jamal’s legal team is preparing for a hearing on Thursday that could decide the fate of the imprisoned former Black Panther. Mumia Abu-Jamal has been on death row for 25 years, after being convicted of killing a police officer following a controversial trial before a predominantly white jury.

On Thursday, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals will hear oral arguments to decide whether Mumia Abu-Jamal gets a new trial, life in prison without parole or execution. Hundreds of supporters, including Danny Glover and Cynthia McKinney, are planning to rally outside the courthouse.

In a few minutes, we’ll be joined in Philadelphia by Linn Washington, a columnist for The Philadelphia Tribune and professor at Temple University. But first, we turn to Mumia Abu-Jamal in his own words. Before he was jailed, Mumia Abu-Jamal was an award-winning journalist in Philadelphia. He continues his journalism behind bars, regularly records commentaries for the Prison Radio Project. This essay is called “Furor Over Politicizing Justice.”

MUMIA ABU-JAMAL: As voices now rise over recent revelations of White House pressures to remove uncooperative U.S. attorneys from their posts, protests over the politicizing of the Justice Department have approached the dimensions of a media firestorm. From the den, we may assume that U.S. attorneys are supremely apolitical. They’re but impartial officers of state power who do not deign to submit to the winding whims of politics nor the bile of bias. It is remarkable to see political appointees denounce the very practice of politics as if it were contagious disease.

In truth, the Department of Justice isn’t less political than other departments of government; it may even be more political. Who is prosecuted and for what is a political decision. Indeed, many of the removed U.S. attorneys reportedly did not try death penalty cases with the enthusiasm that the Justice Department required. Ain’t that political? When the Justice Department targeted the former governor of Illinois, George Ryan, who made international news for his dismantling of that state’s death row, wasn’t that political? What of the recent indictments of the San Francisco Eight, former Black Panthers, some who have been subjected to torture both in the '70s and more recently in connection with an alleged 1971 attack on a San Francisco police station? Ain't that political?

To suggest that a politically appointed official isn’t subject to political pressure is like believing in the tooth fairy. It’s OK if you’re five years old, but not if you’re an adult. Huey P. Newton, founder of the Black Panther Party, once said, “Everything is political,” meaning how we live, what we eat, education, health, how we interact socially. All of these things are impacted by our political decisions.

Now, none of this is to suggest that these removals ordered by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales weren’t slimy. They’re slimy as whale poop. But let’s not even run amok with our unquestioned assumptions. Gonzales is the reincarnation of Nixon’s John Mitchell, the Watergate-era attorney general who left the office in handcuffs. In fact, John Dean, a Nixon aide during the Watergate scandal, has written a book, the title of which aptly summarizes the present administration: Worse Than Watergate.

Why no calls for Gonzales’s resignation when news came out about FBI snooping on U.S. citizens? For torture alone, he should be canned. The media, which was an accomplice in the crimes of invasion and occupation, now turns up the volume, because eight lawyers were fired. Doesn’t this smack of classic class bias? Let’s not rely on a fable. From death row, this is Mumia Abu-Jamal.

AMY GOODMAN: And this is Democracy Now! Linn Washington now joins us in Philadelphia, columnist for The Philadelphia Tribune, journalism professor at Temple University, has been following Mumia Abu-Jamal’s case for, well, the last quarter century. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Professor Washington.

LINN WASHINGTON: Hi, Amy. How are you?

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Talk about this hearing that will be taking place on Thursday. How significant is it?

LINN WASHINGTON: Well, this is a very significant hearing, because it can determine whether Abu-Jamal finally gets a fair trial or if he’s fast-tracked for that conveyor belt for execution. There’s four basic issues here, one involving discriminatory practices in the selection of the jury. The other is the alleged bias of the trial judge during the 1995 appeals hearing, bias that, I must say, that independent journalists from mainstream news media around the country, including media that has been hostile to Abu-Jamal, felt was an absolute travesty in terms of the bias. And then there’s two other really technical issues, one involving the jury verdict form and the other involving an argument that the prosecutor made to the jury to try to lessen their responsibility in finding Abu-Jamal liable for death, interestingly language that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court outlawed in 1986, re-imposed when Abu-Jamal had his first appeal hearing in '89, and then reversed itself again in 1990. It's ironic that you played that particular commentary by Abu-Jamal dealing with politicization of the justice system, because that is exactly what’s happening in this case and has been a part of it for the last 25 years.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, what about the appeals judge panel? Who are these judges? Why would this be different than any other time?

LINN WASHINGTON: Well, for one thing, this particular court, or should I say the federal court system, has a better track record of being fair. The core problem with the Abu-Jamal case in terms of how the judiciary has handled this is that the judiciary has consistently failed to apply its own legal precedents. And to break that down in layman’s terms, courts are supposed to follow rules, and the rules are previous rulings. And in the Abu-Jamal case, they just keep going back and forth, flip-flopping all over the place.

So hopefully the Third Circuit will be that forum where finally judges apply the law. If, in fact, they apply the law, the three judges on this particular panel have participated in panels of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals over the last three-and-a-half years, where they have overturned life sentences and death sentences because of the jury discriminatory selection practices of the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Linn Washington, columnist for The Philadelphia Tribune. Did you know Mumia Abu-Jamal before he was imprisoned?

LINN WASHINGTON: I knew him. Wow, let me just say this, I knew him before people called me “sir” and “mister.” They called me “young man.” I first met Mumia in 1973 when we both worked at Temple University’s radio station, WRTI-FM. We were acquaintances from, I guess, a period of 1976 up through his incarceration, or shall I say, his arrest and subsequent incarceration. We worked very closely together as reporters here in Philadelphia, and, yes, we did, in fact, develop a good friendship.

AMY GOODMAN: This hearing on Thursday, there’s expected to be a major rally outside. Can you talk about the preparations, and also what do you expect to come out of it? When will the decision be made?

LINN WASHINGTON: Well, from what I’m told, both from checking with my sources and reading press releases, because I’m not a part of the activism related to this, they expect busloads of people from outside of the city, a groundswell of support within the city, people coming in from Europe, England and France and Germany, in particular.

And in terms of the outcome, the case will — or should I say the panel will probably deliberate a couple of weeks, if not one or two months, and then they will issue their opinion. The federal courts usually proceed in their deliberations a lot quicker than state courts, so we could have a decision in this case clearly before the end of the year, perhaps as recently or as soon as a couple of months.

AMY GOODMAN: That decision could be? What are the options?

LINN WASHINGTON: Well, the options, from what I understand, are a couple. One, the appeals court could order a whole new trial for Abu-Jamal. Number two, they could send the case back to the district court judge who handled it, which is called a remand, with instructions to hold a hearing or make rulings in a particular way that would probably be on the jury selection discrimination issue. They could also order a new PCRA. In 1995, there was a state-level appeal, and in this appeal, this is where the trial judge, Albert Sabo, the original trial judge, engaged in egregious misconduct. So the federal courts could order a new PCRA hearing, and I’m told that may, in all probability, take place in a federal court.

They could also uphold Abu-Jamal’s conviction. Then there would be perhaps — well, not perhaps, there would be an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. In all likelihood, given the composition of that court, Abu-Jamal’s conviction would be upheld, and then it would come back to the governor of the state, and he has already pledged — some more politicization — that he would sign a death warrant, and then things would move along on a wholly different track.

AMY GOODMAN: Governor Rendell?

LINN WASHINGTON: Governor Ed Rendell, who was the DA of Philadelphia at the time of Abu-Jamal’s original trial, subsequently became the mayor of the city, where he presided over extraordinary police brutality, fighting it tooth and nail, and now he’s the — when I say fighting it tooth and nail, not fighting against it, fighting to cover it up and to ameliorate it — and now he’s the governor of our state.

AMY GOODMAN: I remember going to Philadelphia for one of the hearings that was before Judge Sabo in 1995. It was a remarkable, I guess you could say, performance. He would walk in and out of the courtroom.

LINN WASHINGTON: Yes, yes. I mean, this guy was the absolute worst. His behavior in 1995 was so bad that Philadelphia’s mainstream media not only editorialized against it, saying it was a travesty of justice and undermined any semblance of a fair trial, it actually gave fuel to Abu-Jamal’s supporters’ complaints. But like I said, these people were normally hostile to Abu-Jamal, and they were really outraged by it. But, unfortunately, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court wasn’t. And in their 1998 opinion upholding Abu-Jamal’s appeal, they said the opinions of a handful of journalists do not convince us that Sabo was not impartial, despite him doing A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I … X, Y, Z, you know, all the way down, a whole litany of things that he did, but they said, he was, in fact, impartial, and we’re going to stand by it. That, too, was a travesty.

But you have to understand, there’s been such politicization of this court, five members of the seven-member Supreme Court that upheld Abu-Jamal’s conviction in 1998 received campaign contributions and campaign support from the Fraternal Order of Police, which is a Philadelphia police union, the main group that is pushing for his execution. Does that give the appearance of impartiality? It doesn’t to a lot of people, because of the campaign finances.

There was a study done, ironically, in 1998, where the Pennsylvania Supreme Court had a commission do a survey of the public, and — what was it — four out of 10, or it was an extraordinarily high percentage of the public in Pennsylvania, felt that campaign contributions had a direct impact on rulings and deliberations of all courts, including the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

AMY GOODMAN: Linn Washington, we’ll leave it there, but we’ll continue to cover this case through the week. Columnist for The Philadelphia Tribune, Linn Washington, also a journalist and professor at Temple University, thanks so much for joining us, as we end today’s broadcast with Mumia Abu-Jamal in his own words. Last November, he appeared on the Block Report Radio program.

MUMIA ABU-JAMAL: People who believe purely in the law are sometimes met with unbelief. They can’t believe that the law hasn’t done the right thing. That’s because they have a misunderstanding of the law. I mean, what has happened in my case has happened in other people’s cases. The question is not the law, but the people. If people organize and people understand that it will take the power of the people, you know, to change this thing, then they’ll understand what they need to do, if they feel compelled, if they feel pushed, if they feel that this is the right thing to do.

But, you know, if we know anything from history, we know that the law has been the force for the outlaw for hundreds of years for our people. I mean, right after the Civil War, the so-called Reconstruction amendments were put in the Constitution, but for millions of our people all across the country, it was as if no such amendments were written, because our people still couldn’t vote. We were not free. We couldn’t make contracts or have jobs or go to decent schools. You know, look at our condition today. So the law is one thing. The people are another. I rely on the people.

AMY GOODMAN: Mumia Abu-Jamal. His hearing will be on Thursday in Philadelphia.

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